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Food Production, Food Systems, and the Environment

Agriculture is essential to combat food insecurity and feed the current and growing population. Yet food production today is ‘credited’ with some of the more globally damaging environmental problems facing us today: a primary driver of deforestation, land use change and loss of biodiversity; contributing 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and climate forcing, accounting for 70% of water withdrawals, and eutrophication of waterways and coastal zones, among others. Actions taken at one scale (the farm) can have local (water) and global (climate) consequences. Many of these environmental impacts in turn can affect human health. The food system beyond production including postharvest storage, processing, packaging, distribution, and consumption all contribute to environmental impacts.

The two-way interactions, and feedbacks between food production/food systems with many environmental processes and ecosystem services illustrates the complex and dynamic nature of the production system. In order to mitigate the environmental problems associated with agriculture and develop more sustainable food production/systems, it is essential to understand these interactions and how interventions in one aspect of the system can cascade in negative (tradeoffs) or positive (synergies) and either improve or worsen the impacts. This approach requires data, indicators, and models to assess and compare current and proposed alternative systems. Locally relevant data are needed to calibrate models for use in estimating indicators and in scaling plausible interventions. These models can elucidate the possible tradeoffs and synergies with the environment and provide guidance for better interventions.

Many technologies already exist that could make food production and food systems more environmentally sustainable, i.e.., fewer tradeoffs, more synergies. So, why don’t we see them widespread on farms, landscapes, and in factories? Are they not profitable for farmers, or companies, affordable for consumers? Are they not accessible to broad swaths of populations? Answering these questions requires adoption studies that involve stakeholders throughout the food system. These studies can inform the enabling environment that is required to redress the constraints to widespread adoption.

Key questions to investigate with these models, stakeholder engagement, and scenarios:

What are cost effective-, rapid assessment indicators, tools, and models to assess environmental impacts of current/alternative food production/systems?

What are the tradeoffs among food production, environmental goals, and economic outcomes)? Tradeoffs for whom? What can be done to mitigate tradeoffs? What are the costs? Who pays?

• What are possible routes to ‘circularity’ and ‘carbon neutrality’ or even ‘carbon negativity’ of food production and food systems? What systems could provide high-impact examples? Where?

• What are potential tradeoffs and synergies among environmental goals? Carbon vs/and water?

FSI Lead for the Food Production and the Environment Thematic Area:

Cheryl Palm